'It’s not just 'a job'' Framestore Head of Talent Amy Smith on securing VFX artist jobs and more
Amy Smith is Head of Talent at Framestore, the legendary VFX company who have offices in London, Los Angeles and Montréal and have worked on smash hits such as Avengers: Infinity War, Paddington 2, Blade Runner: 2049, Thor: Ragnarok and the forthcoming Mary Poppins Returns. Following our amazing Mandy Crew surgery, here Amy shares what VFX artists can expect working at Framestore, the realities of VFX artists jobs, how she got to where she is today and some incredible facts about the films she works on.
Amy, tell us a little bit about how you got into the film industry and what your first job was? Also, was VFX always something that appealed to you from day one?
My route into the industry was a little circuitous. At school (and still a bit secretly!) I wanted to be a volcanologist but I wasn’t given the best career advice. So I ended up doing an English Literature degree instead and once I graduated was applying for the usual round of office admin/reception type jobs. I ended up being offered a position as Personnel Assistant in my local supermarket which I didn’t know anything about but it seemed like a good opportunity and I didn’t really have anything to lose at that point.
Through that opportunity I discovered that I really liked HR but didn’t really enjoy the retail environment. So I started applying for other HR assistant jobs through recruitment agencies and one of them was at a company called Framestore. I didn’t understand anything about what they did at the time but I got the job and the rest, as they say, is history!
As Head of Talent, describe what you would do in a normal day?
There are two parts to my job. One is to oversee the recruitment for the film division of Framestore. I oversee a team of recruiters: three in London and five in Montreal. The second part of the job is retention. We find the people we need through recruitment so retention is making sure they aren’t tempted away by our competitors as it’s a very competitive marketplace. Retention could involve looking at everything from career development and training, to the environment, to initiatives and obviously our benefits and salary packages. Anything that can affect someone’s interest in staying at Framestore. My job is very varied and I get involved with lots of different things.
Who do you communicate with mainly and who are you’re biggest points of contact?
I report directly to our joint MDs of film. I also work closely with our CEO on certain projects that are more company wide. On a day to day basis I work with our internal resourcing team who are the ones who identify when we have vacancies and what skillsets we need, etc. I also liaise with our training and HR teams in regards to retention programmes and staff development programmes too.
What can one expect working at Framestore?
Well we have just moved into our new building in Chancery Lane which is awesome! In recent times we had been spread across five buildings in Soho and all of the divisions and departments were separated by location. Being in one building is already starting to encourage cross-collaboration between divisions, artists and on projects. The building has big, open-plan floors and a dedicated cafeteria with lots of communal space where people can have lunch and meet up and that’s something that will make a huge difference to how we work.
In addition to that, we largely use a department structure when it comes to where people sit. This means that you’re surrounded by other people doing the same job as you so there is a lot of on-the-job mentoring and learning that takes place. The environment is very team-oriented so it’s not the kind of environment where you can poke your head in and not communicate all day. It’s very collaborative. People are talking to each other all the time and, most importantly, it’s a fun environment!
What are the ideal traits you look for in a person when you’re recruiting whether it’s an artist or supervisor or something else?
They have got to be enthusiastic and passionate about what they do. There is no indifference at Framestore. It’s not just “a job”.
You have to be able to take critique and feedback in a constructive way. The nature of of our work is that we are working to a client and the client might make decisions that you’re not happy with or ask you to redo something multiple times. It is what it is and you have to take that on the chin and not take it personally; you’re trying to deliver their vision.
Our work is taking us in new directions and there is a lot of crossover between our film and VR departments as well as our advertising department. Even theme park rides now! So people who are curious, want to learn new things and want to use their skillset in different ways are really important to us.
Ultimately we’re looking for someone who is comfortable working in a team, who can communicate well, can problem-solve, innovate, loves to learn and is curious, and is able to both receive and give feedback. That’s the sort of holy grail!
When someone joins the team, how do they know which department and project they’ll end up working on? How is it all split departmentally at Framestore?
You’ll be hired into a particular department such as TV, advertising, film, etc. and you’ll work on whichever project has been discussed with you during the recruitment process. Length depends on the project(s) and overall how busy the department is. If it’s film (for example) then a typical contract could be anywhere from six to twelve months.
If it’s a commercial then it could be as short as three to six weeks. If you’re interested in trying out other divisions or working at one of our other offices in Canada, India or the US then all of those opportunities are definitely there. We don’t however have people hopping or moving to another division every couple of weeks as that would be impossible to manage! But if people have ambitions to try different things then we try to facilitate that where we can.
Tell us a little bit about some of the projects you have been working on recently? What was the process on films like Paddington 2 or Blade Runner 2049?
Blade Runner was mainly done out of our Montreal office as the director, Denis Villeneuve, is from Montreal. So he was very keen on that film being done there. That then involved growing the Montreal team and, in fact, we are still growing it; it’s been consistently growing since we opened in 2014. The great thing was we had already worked with Denis on Arrival so he knew us and we knew him. A lot of the work on that show was environment work for the Las Vegas sequence.
One of the differences between Paddington and Blade Runner was that for Blade Runner we were doing a number of shots or sequences in the film and other visual effects companies were doing other sequences. Splitting up the VFX work is quite a normal approach by a studio and there are lots of projects with multiple VFX studios involved. With Paddington however the whole show was a Framestore show. That’s a very different experience. Our animation director Pablo Grillo was heavily involved in helping to make creative and story decisions and we weren’t simply working in a post-production capacity.
In addition to those two films, we also recently delivered a huge amount of work for Thor: Ragnarok. We were awarded some work with the Hulk which was a real honour because very few VFX studios have worked on him. We also created six fully hi-res digital doubles, 16 fully CG characters, seven spaceships and 1.7 worlds, of which one was Asgard which we then destroyed! My favourite statistic from that film was that if we had rendered from just one computer then it would have taken 3,899 years to complete!
Right now, we’ve just delivering Avengers: Infinity War part 1 as well as working on Andy Serkis’s Mowgli film, Mary Poppins Returns, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Detective Pikachu, Women Of Marwen, and just recently we’ve started some work on Alita: Battle Angel.
In this age of specialism especially with VFX, what do you need in terms of what they can do from a member of the VFX team?
Some of our divisions are more specialised than others in terms of the skill set that they look for. Having said that, what we always say to students is we’re looking for a T-shaped person. By that I mean they should have a broad understanding of a variety of things but within that they have a specialism.
It is no good only understanding a single department and not understanding those up and down stream from you because then you’re not going to understand what you’re being delivered from another department or what needs delivering to another department. So it’s important to have that broader baseline knowledge no matter which department or division is of interest.
Was it a particularly scary process moving from retail to the world of film and advertising at Framestore? Was it hard picking up and absorbing the nuances and differences between the two industries?
It was to start with because there is so much jargon in this industry. Then again, that is true with a lot of industries. I was really helped by the fact, and this might show my age, that showreels were still on VHS and sometimes Beta tape as well. So to do showreel reviews back then, I had to book a meeting room with the head of department and take a stack of showreels, physically plug them in and then manually write notes. That really helped get my knowledge up to speed very quickly.
I feel it’s much harder for people coming in now, certainly in my team in recruitment, because everything is online and forwarded to the head of the department to respond. There isn’t as much personal interaction and my team don’t learn as quickly as a result which I think is a shame. On the production side, we have a lot of production assistants or coordinators who come in and are not necessarily from a VFX background so we have production training in place to help them get up to speed with each of the departments, terminology, etc.
I’m still learning every day with technology moving as quickly as it is and to be fair I still sit in a R&D interview and still have no idea what’s going on!
In terms of recruitment, describe an ideal submission from a prospective candidate?
Definitely do not apply for everything on the website. Be specific. There has got to be something that you are 100% passionate about so apply for that. When it comes to showreels, keep it simple. You’re not making a music video, you’re making a showcase for your work. I think sometimes people get so caught up editing their pieces to the music and making it all singing all dancing that they forget they’re supposed to be displaying their work.
The first thing we do as recruiters is look at the showreel and not the CV. The CV is there to just back up what we’ve seen so please keep it simple. Follow any instructions that the studio has given and most of the time that means please apply online. We obviously have a big recruitment team and if you apply online then it gets to the right people whereas if you email it will just get lost.
Having said that, feel free to connect with us on LinkedIn or even our heads of department too. They’re always willing to connect with people and answer any questions. Don’t be intimidated to reach out to them. There have been numerous occasions where a head of department will come to me and tell me they’ve been chatting to someone on LinkedIn who they would love to bring in. It happens more often than you think.
What makes a good recruiter? Can you tell us about Next-Gen too?
The difference between this industry and some other industries is that in other companies you have a vacancy, you fill it and your job is largely done. The nature of this industry means people are on fixed-term contracts and as a result they move around the facilities relatively often and so we are not filling a vacancy once, we have to establish long-term relationships with people. In my 15 years of doing this, there are people I have hired five or six times during their career. The key thing I’m looking for in a recruiter is someone who can be very human and very honest with people. It’s all about building these relationships. It’s not a numbers game. It’s about knowing these artists, knowing what they’re looking for, where they’ve been, when they’re available and understanding their motivations and what’s important to them.
Another thing I look for in a recruiter is a sense of urgency as sometimes shows can drop overnight. This means you can go from having no vacancies in a department to suddenly having 20 in the space of 24 hours. You’ve got to show that you’re on it and give people the confidence that you can do the job. We do a lot of events as a team whether it’s Framestore specific events, FMX, SIGGRAPH or University job fairs so being able to talk to people and being a good brand ambassador for Framestore is very important.
The NextGen Skills Academy was set up four years ago supported by over 120 organisations across visual effects, games and animation. The goal was to work together to try and improve the educational pipeline for our industries. We developed a level 3 diploma, which is equivalent to A-Levels, in games, VFX and animation skills. The diploma is currently running at several colleges around the UK and more are coming on board all the time. The idea is that at the end of the level 3, the students can either go to university or onto one of our two VFX apprenticeships. The apprenticeships are Junior 2D Artist and Assistant Technical Director, and both are at level 4. At Framestore we so far have eight apprentices between those two.
The other thing I should mention is Access: VFX. Access: VFX is a collaboration between 14 studios plus eight industry partners such as the UK Screen Alliance and Escape Studios. We are working together to promote better diversity in our industry as, like a lot of the technology sector, we suffer from a lack of representation of women, people from BAME backgrounds and also those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. The goal of Access:VFX is to provide better sign-posting, inspiration and guidance to our industry to these under-represented groups.Tags: